Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope doesn’t release until Thursday, October 20, but the review embargo lifts today. However, I’m still journeying through Mario’s latest tactical crossover, so I’m not ready to give a full verdict as of yet. In the meantime, however, here are some impressions based on roughly the first half of the game.
As a fan of Kingdom Battle, I’ve enjoyed what I’ve played of Sparks of Hope. It retains the core strategic gameplay of the original, so if you liked the first game, you’ll probably enjoy this as well. Removing the grid and having freedom of movement feels liberating, however, and is one of the big game-changers. It’s interesting because this doesn’t change my approach to playing a turn-based tactics game. Heroes still have limited ranges and can’t move after attacking. But controlling heroes as I would in a regular third-person game feels better and adds flexibility in positioning while, potentially, making it more inviting to non-tactics fans. I also like how Ubisoft Milan applied this philosophy to encounter and stage design. Certain enemies and level hazards operate in real-time; a lit bob-omb explodes in seconds regardless of turn order, and I love that I can avoid certain dangers by simply running out of the way instead of planning steps ahead to do so.
Sparks also has a welcomed element of strategy. Equipping these Luma/Rabbid hybrids enhances standard attacks with elemental traits, like fire or ice. Now, when starting a battle, I have to take into account elemental weaknesses on top of the opponent types and terrain. I like how Sparks encourage me to be more mindful of the playing field; I’m constantly swapping Sparks between heroes and assembling my team accordingly. Since you can equip two Sparks per hero, they make everyone feel more versatile as individuals. Thus far, Sparks have also helped prevent me from sticking with the same line-up. It helps that team composition has opened up. Squad assembly is more fun and interesting now that I can use any combination of heroes instead of being restricted to using one Mario character and one Rabbid as in Kingdom Battle.
Exploring the larger, activity-laden overworlds feels more engaging and rewarding. I’ve run into tons of sidequests (though some are just more battles), a few decent environmental puzzles, and small mini-games that help break up the flow instead of running through battle after battle. They’re not the greatest overworlds I’ve explored, but they’re miles better than what Kingdom Battle offered. Each planet feels packed with hidden goodies, and gaining new abilities to open up inaccessible areas makes me excited to revisit old worlds to unearth secrets.
On the narrative side (yes, there is a plot), the writing is charming and inoffensive. Hearing the Rabbids speak, even if it’s only short phrases, is still off-putting but not terrible. The tale thus far goes for animated film-level comedy that’s squarely aimed at the young’uns, which is perfectly fine. Sparks of Hope’s humor doesn’t split my sides, but it hasn’t made me facepalm, either.
I have a lot of game left to play, but Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope feels like the best kind of sequel in that its improvements make me wonder how we put up with the limitations of Kingdom Battle. I really love the added flexibility movement and combat affords, the battles have been enjoyable, and it still has that challenging bite that makes the big victories feel like genuine triumphs. We’ll see if the game continues its upward trajectory, but I’m happy with what I’ve experienced so far.